GRAND FORKS — This year’s early freeze-up has me thinking about ice fishing and ice safety.
A couple of incidents in my ice fishing memory book stand out. Like the time I ventured out on thin ice. And the time a hazard hidden beneath the snow on ice that was a foot and a half thick could have been disastrous.
Being cognizant of my surroundings served me well on both occasions.
The adventure on thin ice -- which I definitely will never repeat — occurred nearly 20 years ago, when I ventured out with Dave Genz, aka “Mr. Ice Fishing,” and Bruce Mosher of “Ice Buster Bobber” fame onto a small lake in Minnesota's Polk County.
Genz, who lives near St. Cloud, Minn., was in East Grand Forks, Minn., for an ice fishing retail event and was staying with Mosher, of Beltrami, Minn., who had gotten a tip the small lake was frozen.
In the interests of finding a story — and perhaps a few crappies — I got talked into joining them.
Time has dimmed the specifics of that afternoon, but the way I remember it, Genz tentatively stepped off shore with a spud bar and gave the ice of the small lake a good jab.
One or two hits, and he easily broke through.
Back on shore he went.
Our trip appeared to be over, but Mosher, unfazed, decided to venture a few steps farther and found ice that was thicker, if only marginally so.
Every cautious step took him farther, and Genz soon followed at a safe distance.
I remained on shore through all of this, but after they’d made it 100 yards or so without incident and started setting up to fish, I reluctantly followed.
I was prepared; my boots had ice cleats, I wore a life jacket and carried a set of ice picks I hoped I wouldn’t have to use. I was with two experienced ice fishermen, but still I was nervous.
Every step produced an unsettling groan from the ice, but it didn’t crack. Instead, the ice seemed to move, kind of like a waterbed mattress or a tarp over a swimming pool.
We didn’t dare get closer than about 50 feet of each other.
Walking out as far as I dared, I drilled a hole, set up my gear and settled into the single-person portable shelter I pulled onto the ice.
The dark blue canvas of the portable shielded the sun and illuminated the lake beneath my feet. Only then did I fully grasp how little ice separated me from open water.
It wasn’t much more than 2 inches thick. I don’t remember how deep the water was, but it was deep enough.
We fished maybe an hour, and while the action was slow, we made our way back to shore without incident.
That was the biggest success of the day.
Another time, some friends and I were fishing a designated trout lake in Itasca County of northern Minnesota in search of splake, a hybrid cross between brook trout and lake trout with all of the beauty and fighting abilities of both species.
The ice was a solid foot-and-a-half thick in the bay where we set up to fish. Only after we started drilling holes to keep on top of the splake did we notice a spot in the snow that was lower than the surrounding snow.
Then we saw why: A spring had resulted in a large patch of open water that was concealed by recent snowfall.
That could have been bad if we hadn’t been paying attention.
The moral of the story, I guess, is be careful out there. Don’t venture out on thin ice, and be alert for hazards, regardless of how thick the ice is.
Even safe ice isn’t necessarily safe.